Review of the Banking Sector (September 21)

Update 300: Review of the Banking Sector; the Irony of Records Being Set Amid Deregulation

Today we go back to basics with a quarterly review of the health of the financial sector and the disparate sub-sectors comprising it. Industry has fostered misrepresentations of the state of the sector claiming to be hamstrung by regulation and suffering consolidation. Its reason is because Dodd-Frank is working all too well and yet still beset by Too Big To Fail because it isn’t working.   

In fact, never have revenues been higher, margins bigger, market caps bigger, salaries and bonuses bigger… and competition keener.  We’ll take the issue up again on October 2 when Senate Banking holds a hearing on the “Implementation of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act,” where the panel will re-examine whether bank deregulation makes sense given the current cyclical condition of the sector.  

Good reading and good weekends all…

Best,

Dana

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The Banking Sector’s Big Boom

  • Credit Unions

Prior to the passage of S.2155, credit unions were profiting significantly through market consolidation as they continued to gain more market share in areas underserved by community banks. In fact, they have increased their overall market share from around 6 percent at the start of the financial crisis to 7.4 percent in 2017. In other words, credit unions were doing better than ever and were not in need of further deregulation. Despite this, credit unions claimed a large victory in the deregulatory policies of S.2155, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. Credit unions, along with community banks, received some deregulatory benefits in the bill, but the lion’s share of the benefits in S.2155 still went to the Wall Street elite firms.

  • Community Banks

Since the financial crisis, the condition of community banks has improved considerably. Community banks range from institutions with less than $1 billion in aggregate assets up to institutions with under $10 billion.  One of S.2155’s most notable changes raised the total asset threshold for submission to annual Federal Reserve stress testing from $50 billion to $250 billion, ostensibly not affecting community banks. This increased threshold does give more leeway to small banks looking to grow their asset size, because banks would have to hold over $250 billion in assets before being subjected to enhanced prudential standards.  However, the Fed could use its discretion to apply these standards to banks with between $100 and $250 billion in assets.

  • Midsize Regional Banks

Ten years out from the financial crisis, midsize regional banks also continue to improve.  Some of these banks, buoyed by the 2017 tax law, higher interest rates, and rising commercial bank loans, have almost doubled in size since 1Q 2017. Midsize regional banks gained the most by far from S.2155. Loosening regulatory scrutiny, including automatic enhanced prudential standards, on banks with assets up to $250 billion, hugely benefited the 24 mid-sized regional banks. These banks include household names like PNC, Capital One, SunTrust, and BB&T — not small, community-oriented banks. Rather, precisely these kinds of banks — institutions on their way to becoming banking giants and providing services and loans to the average American — need federal oversight.

  • Wall Street Elite Firms

In the years since the financial crisis, the nation’s elite banks have grown exponentially. The top 15 largest banks, including the likes of J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, now hold a combined total of over $13 trillion in assets. The top six banks have also experienced record profit growth in recent years, seeing double-digit increases in just the last year from 2Q 2017 to 2Q 2018.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Republicans in Congress, and some Democrats, are deregulating under the guise of helping the little guys — community banks and credit unions — while many of the benefits are actually going to the top 100 financial institutions. Big banks continue to push for deregulatory measures, all the while continuing to benefit from the windfalls of S.2155 and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Underfunded, Understaffed, Undermined

While financial institutions are basking in the golden age of banking, federal agencies are under attack. Crucial regulatory and oversight agencies are undergoing severe budget and staffing cuts, and the Trump Administration and the GOP Congress remain hellbent on weakening protections under DFA.

  • FSOC/Fed: Last week, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) used its discretion to remove the systemically important financial institution (SIFI) status of Zions Bank, which was the first time that FSOC has used its powers to de-designate a bank’s systemic risk label. It may be a sign of things to come, as the Fed now has the discretion to apply whatever prudential standards it deems necessary to banks under the new $250 billion threshold. During the same meeting last week, FSOC also reviewed insurance giant Prudential’s status as the one remaining non-bank SIFI. The council did not reach a decision, but the consensus among experts close to the matter is that Prudential’s status as a nonbank SIFI is in jeopardy. Ten years after the financial crisis and the dramatic collapse of American International Group (AIG), FSOC is on the verge of rendering one of the key DFA protections defunct. 
  • OFR: The research arm of FSOC, the Office of Financial Research (OFR), which is charged with seeking out problems in the financial system and raising them with regulators, is being decimated under the current administration. In January, the administration signaled that it was looking to cut OFR’s budget by 25 percent, to around $76 million; in August this year, around 40 staff members were laid off, as the agency’s headcount target is down 65 percent from its peak. The current nominee to head the office, Jeb Hensarling’s chief economist Dino Falaschetti, is a curious choice given Hensarling’s complete disdain for the agency and its mission. 
  • OCC/FDIC: In April of this year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve issued a joint notice of proposed rulemaking (NPR) to make changes to the Enhanced Supplementary Leverage Capital Ratio (eSLR). This change would reduce capital requirements for the eight global-systemically important banks (G-SIBs) at their insured depository institutions by $121 billion, equivalent to a 20 percent reduction in capital. Current FDIC Chair Martin Gruenberg and two former FDIC chairs, Sheila Bair and Thomas Hoenig, have all spoken out against the NPR, arguing that the proposed changes are unnecessary and threaten financial stability.

Banks Turn to Lobbying

In an attempt to strengthen their image and weaken regulation, banks have turned more aggressively towards lobbying efforts.  Formed from a recent merger, the Bank Policy Institute (BPI) represents over 48 of the largest banks of the United States, whose combined lending accounts for 72 percent of all loans issued in the country. It is staffed by analysts, researchers, and attorneys, and is overseen by a Board of Directors consisting of some the largest names in the banking sector including the CEOs of Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase.

BPI’s agenda is unsurprisingly aimed at further deregulation of the banking industry in an attempt to whittle down the regulatory regime that was established after the 2008 financial crisis. The Institute announced this week that it was hiring two top lobbyists to push for its legislative agenda. Some of their goals include lowering reserve requirement ratios and repealing self-funding requirements on lending.

Was S.2155 Worth It?

The aforementioned issues will come to a head on October 2, during the upcoming Senate Banking Committee hearing on the implementation of S.2155. There, we are likely to get a fair hearing on why risky deregulation should go forward when the sector is so flush. Fortunately for supporters of S.2155, costs of regulation are examined much more closely than costs of deregulation, a long-standing norm that makes it easier to deregulate and harder to regulate.  The SBC hearing in October will offer an excellent, hopefully balanced, picture of the benefits and the costs of S.2155, as well as a key platform for exploring the irony of deregulating this flush, prosperous, growing, systemically significant sector.

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